These are boom times for fans and players of solo guitar music. The past few years have seen an impressive glut of new and reissued recordings that feature a performer eking out beautiful, eerie, and sometimes grotesque noise from a six- or 12-string.
The first few months of this year alone have seen the release of some amazing documents from the past, including reissues of '60s recordings from flat-top picker Lena Hughes and the lone 1968 solo recording by another folk-blues lover, Don Bikoff, as well as some incredible recordings from modern musicians getting their due thanks to major indie labels such as Thrill Jockey and Merge.
Why is this resurgence happening now? According to one such player, Chuck Johnson, it is "a generational thing."
"As people come of age as musicians, they become aware of the music from previous generations," the musician says, speaking to from his home in Oakland. "There was a generation of players from '60s and '70s that were uncovering blues record and traditional records and Eastern music that people were starting to become aware of in the West."
What is especially interesting is that John Fahey figures prominently into both the 20th century rediscovery of folk and blues traditions, and its current comeback. In both instances, the late musician (who spent his last years living in Portland and Salem) helped push the roots movement forward via his own albums and his record labels, Takoma and Revenant.
"When he resurfaced in the '90s, a lot of players my age were experiencing that music at a formative time," says Johnson. The influence Fahey had on Johnson is quite evident, particularly on the soon-to-be-released Crows In The Basilica. The humble collection of instrumentals spotlights Johnson's impressive fingerpicked technique, which, like Fahey, allows for stirring melodies to find a place with overtones and droning.
Crows and Johnson's 2011 acoustic release A Struggle, Not A Thought might come as somewhat of a surprise to folks who have followed his career as an electronic composer and experimental artist. But dig further into his discography and you can hear some similar sonic ideas in his more blues-inspired work with bands like Shark Quest and Idyll Swords.
During that span of Johnson's career, he kept digging deeper into the world of acoustic blues and folk. It has meant that his two solo works have come out surprisingly fully-formed, but it took him until around 2009 to commit himself more completely to the sound.
"It look a long time before I felt what I was doing was ready to be heard," he says. "There's so many recognizable, iconic styles in solo guitar that I had a hard time finding my own voice in it."
Of course, much of that discovery came through Johnson's continual studying of the technique of other players and their signature songs. The other school of solo guitarists, such as Jon Collin, came upon their particular sounds instantly, if only because they didn't care to do any research.
"I'm quite happy to have had no formal training as I really can't imagine it to be anything other than burdensome to the music I play," Collin writes via e-mail. "That's not to say I think classical training and free expression are mutually exclusive, just that, personally, I think it would inhibit what I do."
There's little point arguing that point, especially when one dives into Collin's solo catalog. Take his upcoming cassette release on Seattle's Eiderdown Records: The four songs move from melancholic blues with wisely understated use of a slide into brash, fuzzy strumming before closing out with a 19-minute epic that brings blues, noise and spatters of percussion together for a messy and productive summit meeting.
If Collin shares anything with Johnson it is in an emphasis on mood with his recordings. Almost always improvised, the U.K.-based musician lets his work become "influenced or even dictated by environment and atmosphere, both immediate (the recording/performance space, for instance) and more general (recent recordings have been very much affected by moving to the countryside 18 months ago)."
Collin also acknowledges an uptick in the number of solo guitarists making music these days. But, perhaps not surprisingly considering his radically different approach to the instrument, has a much sharper take on the matter.
"I guess maybe there's some element of trend involved, but it's also easier logistically to sit down and play guitar than to rent a practice space and form a band," Collin says. "And playing alone means you don't have to put up with other people."